Materials Research Decadal Survey Seeking Input

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Publication date: 
5 October 2017

A National Academies study committee is currently conducting a decadal survey for materials research at the request of the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation. The committee is seeking broad input from materials science and engineering stakeholders as it prepares a final report for completion in early 2018.

The National Academies materials research (MR) decadal survey, which has been underway since May of this year, is beginning to move toward its conclusion. Charged with conveying the recent achievements, current status, and potential future directions of the U.S. MR enterprise in the context of international efforts, the study committee is still soliciting broad input as it prepares a final report, which is targeted for completion in early 2018.

To date, the committee has held three of five scheduled in-person meetings, with the final two to take place in Boston, Massachusetts, at the end of November and in Irvine, California, in January 2018. And, although it has already held seven town halls at scientific society meetings, it will hold another at the American Vacuum Society meeting in Tampa, Florida, on Nov. 2 and is organizing a virtual town hall, which is tentatively scheduled for Dec. 12.

Furthermore, the committee is accepting input through its website, which also contains information about past and future meetings.


2d Stanene

Researchers at Argonne National Laboratory have begun to use machine learning methods to predict the properties of novel substances such as stanene, a two-dimensional material made of tin atoms.

(Image courtesy of Argonne National Laboratory)

Sponsors urge panel to ‘focus on the science’

At the kickoff meeting in May 2017, federal agency representatives clarified the committee’s statement of task and offered insights into the motivations behind it.

Linda Sapochak, director of the National Science Foundation’s Division of Materials Research, and James Horwitz, team lead for condensed matter and materials physics at the Department of Energy, stressed that although their agencies are sponsoring the study, they do not want the report to be limited to areas on which NSF and DOE focus.

They also urged the committee to neither recommend what particular agencies should do nor develop rank-ordered priorities, in part because such recommendations can constrain how agencies are able to act on the report. Rather, they want the committee to “focus on the science” and identify emerging opportunities as well as areas where the U.S. is leading and falling behind other countries.

In addition, detailed discussion of workforce, training, and instrumentation needs should be avoided, Sapochak said, unless it is tied to a specific science need, such as broad demand for crystal growth facilities, for example.

Asked how the report will be used, Sapochak said it will help NSF to plan more strategically with constrained budgets. Horwitz said he expects it will be both an important resource for the MR community and a means of conveying the importance of MR to Congress. As an analogy, he pointed to DOE’s Basic Research Needs workshop reports as being an important part of DOE’s justification for adding the Energy Frontiers Research Centers program to its budget.

Sweeping scope leads panel to cast wide net

The three co-chairs of the 24-member study committee are Laura Greene, chief scientist of the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory; Tom Lubensky, a physics professor at the University of Pennsylvania; and Matthew Tirrell, deputy laboratory director for science at Argonne National Laboratory.

The committee membership reflects the wide range of MR stakeholders, including a mix of theorists, experimentalists, and computational experts; scientists and engineers; and academic and industry researchers.

Greene — who is currently president of the American Physical Society, an AIP Member Society — emphasized in an interview with FYI that the expansiveness of MR makes the study especially difficult.

“It’s fundamental research all the way to manufacturing. It’s a very broad, important, challenging, and exciting decadal survey,” Greene said. Accordingly, she explained, the report will not attempt to cover all relevant subfields of MR, but rather will highlight a selection of impacts and emerging opportunities. “If we don’t focus on a certain area of research that doesn’t mean we don’t think it is crucial and vital,” she stressed.

Greene remarked that it is still too early to identify particular areas where the committee feels it needs more information and said that they are still encouraging submissions. “The main points are that we want input and we wish we could cover everything,” she said.

Committee expects to employ case studies

Greene noted that she anticipates the committee will include various case studies in its report. “I think the case studies are going to be very, very important because we can’t cover everything,” she said. “[A case study] gets the immediacy across, it gets the excitement across, and it gets the importance across of certain areas.”

Asked for examples of potential case studies, Greene replied, “It might be an example of someone that invents something in their laboratory and it becomes a successful product. It might be something like how the National Institute of Standards and Technology plays such a vital role in manufacturing.”

More broadly, Greene said the committee hopes to convey the new opportunities permeating different fields of MR that have been enabled by recent advances in areas such as materials growth and computation. Speaking of her own research, she remarked,

In my field of quantum matter, one thing that has me so excited is how much it has changed in the last five years. Measurements that were not even possible are there now. …

Some of those are there because of the great leaps forward in materials growth. The quality of these materials being made, even those quantum matter single crystals are astounding, and then couple that with the computation techniques. And I find at least in my field, this is really an exciting time to be doing this work, and what I’m hearing from people in other fields, they’re feeling the same way.

Greene also said she hopes the report will raise awareness of the broad importance of MR to the U.S. and the contributions of physicists in both the public and private sectors.

“I don’t think people understand that it’s all kinds of exciting research that invented the materials that are in the cell phone, some serendipitously and some directed research,” she said.

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